Finding ways to improve the interaction between humans and their computers is one of the most compelling topics in computer science, says Rick Rashid '80 (PhD), who, as senior vice president for research at Microsoft, has a unique window into the issues at hand.
By Jeffrey Marsh
Once upon a time, in the dark ages of the computer revolution known as the late '70s, you may have noticed Richard (Rick) Rashid '80 (PhD) in the computer labs at Rochester.
He was often the graduate student with the bottle of cleaning solution, gently wiping the monitors of the University's cherished supply of Xerox Alto computers. More likely, though, he was the one sitting in front of the screen, programming the brand new machines to do things no one had thought of before.
You will still find Rashid closely tending computer technology, but he long ago traded in the Windex for Windows.
For the past decade, Rashid, now the senior vice president for research at Microsoft, has directed a division of 600 researchers and engineers, helping set the tone for the software giant's trademarked question, "Where do you want to go today?"
"Research has had a huge impact on the direction of Microsoft," Rashid says. "There isn't a product shipped today that hasn't been influenced by the research division in terms of its technology."
Influencing the direction of technology, its use, and its understanding has been a hallmark of Rashid's career ever since the mid-'70s when he first set foot on the River Campus to study computer science in a department that, when he arrived, had no computers of its own.
And in 1979, the pioneer in his nature led him to Carnegie Mellon, where he was hired to found the department of computer science at the Pittsburgh university.
Now reporting directly to Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, Rashid says Microsoft's pioneering approach to computing continues to appeal to him.
"This is the kind of company where you can do anything," he says.
That's always been true at a company where, at the beginning of the computer boom in the early '90s, visitors were likely to find employees-between long hours crunching code-playing hacky-sack or Frisbee at any hour of the day.
Hired in 1992 as the company's first director of research at a time when only the largest computer manufacturers in the world-and none of the software developers-had research divisions, Rashid has helped build the division from a modest budget expectation of $10 million a year to many times that (Microsoft won't release the department's current budget).
He has led the division as the Redmond, Washington, company developed products like Windows XP (the "XP" stands for "experience"), the latest in Microsoft's venerable line of desktop operating systems software. Launched last fall in a media juggernaut not seen since, well, 1995, when Microsoft introduced the software's ancestor, Windows 95, the revamped operating system incorporates new digital media components, improved searching technology, and speech recognition systems developed by the research division.
Based on the company's corporate version of the operating system, XP has won praise for speed, stability, and its new looks. "Like any radical overhaul, XP takes some getting used to . . . but, after time, it's hard not to like the new design," said CNET.com.
Rashid's division has also been a key figure in the development of Microsoft's new ".NET" initiative, designed to emphasize the Internet's role in sharing data and information.
And the division laid the groundwork for "TabletPC"-a specialized version of Windows XP that runs on a new generation of laptop computers that use digital pens and electronic, slate-style screens to input information-that is expected to be launched this fall.
Made up of a top group of scientists and engineers-many lured, like Rashid, from the academic world-the research division puts an emphasis on developing commercial products. That was a big draw for Rashid.
"I have two primary missions: To push forward the state of the art in the field and to move technology we do create into products as rapidly as we can," he says. "So far, we've been pretty successful."
That's putting it mildly. No matter where you stand on the technological spectrum, many of the company's products and their names-Windows, Office, PowerPoint, Word, to name a few-have entered the computer and popular lexicons as proper nouns, much like eponymous brands Xerox or Kleenex.
And while computer users (and recently, legal experts) may argue endlessly about Microsoft's status as industry leader, Rashid, for his part, says he is focused solely on making current technology better and finding new breakthroughs for future uses.
Microsoft's engineers are consistently among the most prolific in presenting the results of their research at technology conferences, often publishing more than any two or three other organizations combined, Rashid says. Scientists also are encouraged to explore beyond their research specialties.
Rashid has taken advantage of the company's free-thinking culture to expand on his interest in operating systems, starting groups that have been influential in the development of the Windows systems. He also expanded on his interest in compression technology and three-dimension graphics rendering.
Coming full circle to his days at Rochester, Rashid turned one of those interests into a popular computer game. Allegiance, a 3-D style multiplayer science fiction game released commercially in 2000, was loosely based on code for Alto Trek, a game that Rashid and classmate Gene Ball '82 (PhD) developed while at Rochester. One of the first networked computer games, Alto Trek took its name from one of Rashid's other obsessions: Star Trek.
"We wondered what would happen if we took this and produced something modern, and it took on a life of its own," he says.
"My personal interests have always driven the research. I've always wanted to explore and learn new things. The technology keeps changing, and I want to keep my skills current."
Rashid was recruited to Rochester by former Stanford professor Jerry Feldman '60, who was selected to head Rochester's then fledgling computer science department.
Chris Brown, computer science professor and Rashid's doctoral advisor, remembers that Rashid arrived on campus before most of the faculty.
"When I met him, he was just a mild-mannered, very mature, and responsible young fellow from Iowa," Brown says. "We didn't know who we were dealing with at the time."
"He had this ability to attract responsibility. In his quiet and polite way, more and more big decisions began to revolve around him."
At the time, Rochester's computer science department had no computers to call its own. A shipment of Altos-a new machine developed by Xerox considered by many to be the first "personal" computer-quickly got Rochester up and running. Still, Brown remembers that the department's budget was so tight that Rashid and other students had to upgrade computers themselves and build their own memory boards.
The faculty restructured their graduate requirements around Rashid's role in the department, allowing him to stay longer than the typical four years for a doctoral degree.
"That was a bit self-serving at the time," Brown admits. "But Rick had taken on so many responsibilities, it wasn't fair to expect him to finish in four years. We depended on him very highly."
The extra time gave Rashid the opportunity to further expand his horizons. Although it didn't fall under his doctoral research, he spent a significant portion of his time working with Feldman to research and develop operating systems and networks.
But for much of his time during the department's formative years he assisted where he was needed, often helping to clean the labs. He programmed computers; he built new hardware; he maintained temperamental machines.
"These days, you don't have the ability to start from scratch," Rashid says. "Those were very pioneering times. That made it exciting. Those are experiences no computer science student will really ever have again."
It was that pioneering spirit that drew Rashid to the computer field and his position at Microsoft, where he's able to help direct progress in technology.
"It speaks well of the job that they let him do the things he's interested in, let him be himself," Brown says. "There's usually constraints at academic or commercial jobs, but it sounds like he's got the best of both worlds now."
Rashid says that as quickly as the industry has developed in the past, it's changing just as quickly today.
"It's difficult to predict what society will do with the changing technology, but in terms of the actual technology itself, I think a lot of the work we're doing now will begin to see the light of day over the next few years," he says. "There will be huge changes in the industry."
Those changes include rapid advances in nanotechnology-computer chips and full computer systems of microscopic sizes. Such devices will speed advances in electro-optical switching, providing for leaps in data transfer and improvements beyond fiber optics, Rashid says.
Another area of rapid growth is expected to be wearable computers. Microsoft is already developing products in that area that will revolutionize the way users interact with computers, he notes.
Data transmission is showing advances as well. A scientist in Rashid's department has developed a pen that will transmit its movements to a computer, allowing people to write on any surface and have their words converted into text.
Advances in data storage are another example of the future of the industry. In just a few years, a normal user will likely have a terabyte of disk space-or 1,000 gigabytes-on a home computer. That's enough space for people to store every conversation they have from birth to death, Rashid says.
"The industry will really change as we reach the stage that computers are able to literally record almost everything we do in our lives. That gives us the opportunity to think about how we can augment more of the things we do through computers."
"It's important to us to continue to improve the way computers interact with people," Rashid says. "That's the future."
Jeffrey Marsh is associate editor of Rochester Review.
Before there was Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, before there was a World Wide Web or an Internet, before there was a personal computer-there was J. C. R. Licklider '41 (PhD).
According to a new book on Licklider's role in the history of computer science, many of the developments that modern computer users take for granted would not have happened-at least not in the same way-without the engaging Missourian who studied psychoacoustics at Rochester.
"Licklider had the vision of what computing could be, and he articulated that vision, sooner than anyone else," says M. Mitchell Waldrop, author of The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (Viking, 2001). "The notion that computers could be friendly, interactive, even joyful parts of our lives was something that Licklider and a handful of others fostered early on. And it was by no means the mainstream notion among computer scientists at the time."
Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (forever known as "Lick"), who died in 1990, is finally getting his due, thanks to Waldrop. A prominent science writer, Waldrop was commissioned by the Sloan Foundation in the early '90s to write a book about computer technology, particularly software. But the more research he did, the more references he encountered to Licklider.
Those recurring references provide the thematic spine for the 500-page history of computing over the past century. In addition to Licklider, who seems to have had an uncanny knack for being near the heart of almost every computer breakthrough in the middle of the century, other Rochester graduates who make appearances include fellow psychoacoustics leader Karl Kryter '43 (PhD), Xerox founder Joseph Wilson '31, and laser printer pioneer Gary Starkweather '66 (MS).
(In a passing reference, the book also notes the pioneering role of the eight founders of the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation in 1957. Commonly known as the "Fairchild eight," the group included Jay Last '51.)
Licklider, who came to Rochester to study what today would be known as cognitive psychology, often took a behind-the-scenes role-as a New York Times review of the book put it, Licklider was the "ideal bureaucrat"-in guiding computer research.
His background as a psychologist and as an expert on human perceptual abilities served him well for two of his most prominent ideas, Waldrop argues.
Licklider was the first, for example, to articulate the notion that computers could be helpful tools for people at their desks. His paper, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," (published as the lead article of the debut of the journal IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics) describes an easy-to-use machine that would complement the work of individuals (as opposed to businesses), in part, by providing real-time access to vast libraries of information. That seems mundane now, but it was a bombshell in 1960.
In the late '60s, as an administrator in the Advanced Research Projects Administration (ARPA) in the Department of Defense, Licklider was the first to outline the benefits of connecting researchers in disparate labs through a network of computers that could respond in real-time, making it seem as if they all were working together.
He dubbed his vision the "Intergalactic Network," but it came into existence under the less prosaic name "ARPA-net." That network later served as the backbone and the prototype for the Internet.
Licklider used his influence-not to mention his $10 million budget-at ARPA to steer support to innovative researchers who were ignored by mainstream computer science. Among the revolutionaries targeted by Licklider were Douglas Engelbart, the developer of hypertext and a key figure in the development of the graphical user interface, and John McCarthy, who pioneered time-share computing.
"Licklider fostered an entire generation of computer engineers who got their start through ARPA," Waldrop says. "He made it possible for a lot of other talented people to do their work."
So why isn't Licklider better known?
Waldrop can only speculate, but for starters, Licklider was by nature reticent to talk about himself. And by the time the computer revolution captured the attention of the media in the mid-'70s, he was much older than whiz kids like Apple founders Jobs and Steve Wozniak. And he was much less telegenic.
"Licklider just wasn't the kind of person who made a good guru for the media," Waldrop says.
And, in the ever-new computer industry with its ever-shorter notion of "Internet time," it's sometimes easy to forget that only a few decades ago, the word "computer" meant a person who ran a calculating machine.
"What Licklider accomplished is, in many ways, very subtle," Waldrop says. "It was very important, but it was also so big that you often can't see it because it seems so obvious."
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